Abhishek Kamani hails from a family with a strong business background that goes back many generations. He oversees the India operations of The Zuri Group Global, the parent company of Zuri Hotels. This year, Abhishek ventured into the online business space with office supply e-commerce portal Zoffio, which he founded in January. It is an e-commerce venture which caters to all office needs including stationery, machines, furniture, pantry products etc. It gives a choice to order online, through phone or via email. The portal aims to cater to the needs of startups, SMEs, MSMEs and large corporations as well.
In an interview with YourStory, Abhishek shed light on how an established brick and mortar entrepreneur looks at an internet business and much more. Edited excerpts:
YS: Coming from a business family, was entrepreneurship always the first choice?
AK: As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Growing up in a very entrepreneurial, traditional Gujarati family, you are not groomed to be a professional. From a young age entrepreneurship, is in the environment around you. It is in your mind that even if you have a very small business, you will be at it. It is not about the money, it is all about being an entrepreneur. You grow up looking at business opportunities all around. I am a hotelier but it does not mean that I am going to be that for life.
If you see most Guajarati families, they are always looking for new things as opposed to what they are already doing. When I was very young, I used to think I will be a lawyer or professional golfer or something else. But by the time I went to college, I didn’t want to do anything else because I enjoyed what my family was doing. And I knew that’s where all my strengths lay as well. My brother and I have been working in the family business since we were 14. I was already familiar with the business. And as soon as I graduated, I joined the business officially.
YS: There has always been a debate about the pros and cons of being a first generation entrepreneur. You come from a well established business family. Does that make things easier or difficult?
AK: The grass is always greener on the other side. Having said that, I prefer the side I am on. If you are a first time entrepreneur, you don’t have the family and social pressure that comes with succeeding. You can afford to fail five times. But when you are in a family business and that too a successful one, you are being judged by the barometer of someone else’s success.
However, you get those head starts which a first time entrepreneur may not get. If I was a first time entrepreneur, I might not have started Zoffio. One of the reasons that I started Zoffio was because of the advantages that Zuri lent me. My learning experience with Zuri and my confidence that came from it had a big role in it. And the reason why I am saying that I still much rather be on this side is keeping in mind that in my family, we have been given the freedom to make mistakes.
My grandfather and father do not check how the company (Zoffio) is doing regularly. But they keep reiterating that this is my first business and there is a very high likelihood that it will fail. They keep telling me not to take things too much to heart and that there are going to be ups and downs. So, I get the advantages that come from not only being in a family business but also the advantage of being allowed to fail if it so happens. My brother and I have been taught that you can fail and no one is perfect. We don’t mind if people fail in our company or if we fail ourselves as long as it is not because we didn’t try.
YS: Your family has always been in the brick and mortar business. When and why did you decide to enter the online business?AK: It happened by chance. It wasn’t that my brother and I were planning for years that we will do this one day. We were living in Bangalore, reading about startups in newspapers. A lot of new businesses were coming online and things looked pretty interesting in the digital space. We set aside some time to come up with something we would want to do in this space. And we wanted to work on some idea that would be good even 10 years or 20 years from now.
We put our heads together and came up with about 20 things, not only in e-commerce but different online ideas. We settled down on office supplies because of an experience we had with Zuri. Once we were looking into how our office supplies are managed and asked our procurement department at the hotel about the process. It was an eye opener for us. We were getting paper and pens from one place, printers and cartridges from another place and something else from somewhere else. It was very scattered. We had three vendors and the contracting was terrible. The pricing was unclear. I asked why were we using three different people when there was a Staples in the market. And the procurement department told us that they don’t have the time or the bandwidth to supply to us. They are only dealing with multinational companies. That’s when we saw a very clear cut massive need in the market. People are getting their office supplies in the most haphazard fashion and there is almost nobody in the market solving this problem. There was just OfficeYes and some other smaller portals which have shut down now.
YS: How has online business been different from the brick and mortar one?
AK: To be slightly philosophical, I think every business has very similar challenges. When you go into the extreme details, they differ but if you look at the strategy level, it is all similar. Every entrepreneur is thinking how will we sell? What is the culture of the company I am building? Where do I go next? All these things are the same and are present in every business. In a way, Zoffio has been easier business than Zuri Hotels. With Zuri, we are selling a perishable product, if we don’t sell the room today, it is gone. We can’t sell yesterday’s room. Whereas here, we can sell the stock tomorrow as well.
YS: What is the problem Zoffio addresses?
AK: When we entered the business, we realised we will be solving many problems which we did not perceive when we started. We didn’t know that people are selling fake products. We didn’t know that they are under selling, or that pricing is not transparent, taxes are miscalculated and so on. People are getting conned and they don’t even realize it. There is a better way where one can save money and get good products conveniently. If you want something in the next 30 minutes, then definitely you should go down the road and get it. We are not catering to the last minute market. We are catering to the businesses or SMEs who generally place orders in advance.
YS: How has the market response been till now and what is the big dream you want to achieve with Zoffio?
AK: The office supplies market in India is worth USD 20 billion and the online players have negligible market share in it. The only players in the market are us and OfficeYes and we don’t have even a 1000th of the market. Of course, the potential is not 20 billion dollars, because the whole of India is not going to buy online. But if I target even 5% of the market it is a billion dollar space. It is enough to make sustainable business for a lifetime. The opportunity for an online player is so massive that we don’t mind even 5-6 more online players. We prefer having them so the word spreads about this through them also.
We have processed a little over 5000 orders till date. We are closing over 100 orders a day now between the two locations, Delhi and Bangalore. We have our ware houses at both these locations. Our plans are very aggressive and we are aiming to be in 12-15 cities in the next 5 years. And we would only continue to invest in it if the traction is looking good. I am glad to say that our phase 1 is going very well. We reached our first year target in just 8.5 months and we are looking to finish year one with the double of our revenue target. It is very promising and exciting.
We are not judging ourself by the barometer of a traditional e-commerce business. In 5 years, if it’s worth it we will continue, otherwise we won’t. We are not under any pressure to show results which is good for us because we can grow without that. We don’t have to do desperate things. We don’t have to pump in lakhs of rupees on online marketing and that’s the money which doesn’t come back. We are happy to grow slowly. The pace at which we are growing is good but even if it was slower we don’t mind. We are not looking to exit in two or five years. It is a long term idea and even if it takes 10 or 15 years, it is great. It should be a good company to work for and should be self-sustainable.